Within the general population, the frequency of clinical mental health disorders is roughly 25%, meaning that 1 in 4 will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. However, to see mental health as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is too simplistic; mental health is a moving continuum where an individual may experience poor mental health symptoms, which do not indicate clinical disorder, and are manageable and reversible. This means that actually, a far higher percentage of people could be suffering from poor mental health symptoms, if you are to consider low mood, stress, or anxiety.
COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China in December 2019, with the first case identified in the United Kingdom in January 2020. On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic, with the potential to adversely impact mental health.
Research from a much smaller pandemic, the 2003 SARS outbreak, showed that fear, loneliness, stress, and anxiety were all heightened during this time. This suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic, a pandemic with much larger impacts on our everyday life, will have had, and continue to have, negative effects on the population, initiating, or worsening any pre-existing stress problems. This is supported by current research showing that COVID-19 has resulted in widespread emotional distress and increased risk for psychiatric illness.
During the first half of 2020, I worked with the Army, and while I was there, I wanted to investigate how low-level, easily accessible stress interventions may help to reduce stress levels over the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the restrictions on face-to-face contact during this time, I decided to evaluate if apps could be used to alleviate stress.
Headspace is a scientifically based mindfulness app that works towards improving overall well-being in personal lives and the workplace by providing mindfulness sessions. Headspace has been shown to reduce stress in a range of environments, for example medical students, police officers, and office workers, with stress reducing by 14% in just 10 days. With this in mind, I hypothesised that using the app Headspace would reduce perceived stress in an Army population.
799 Army employees received a full Headspace app license after completing the Perceived Stress Scale questionnaire and were asked to complete the same questionnaire again after 2 months of usage. 93% of participants were Armed Forces personnel and 7% of participants were civil servants employed by the Armed Forces.
Over the two-month Headspace trial period, a significant reduction in stress was observed. This supports the previous literature in suggesting the Headspace app is a successful tool in reducing everyday stress.
Civil servants were found to have significantly higher stress at baseline than Army personnel. This could suggest that the general public may also have higher stress levels during the COVID-19 pandemic than members of the Armed Forces, however, as only 7% of the participants were civil servants it is difficult to generalise. Regardless of baseline stress levels, Headspace was found to be equally as effective in reducing stress for all Army employees (military and civilian). This means that Headspace can be an efficient tool in reducing stress in anyone, experiencing any level of everyday stress.
In-depth analysis revealed that stress significantly decreased with just 1–2 months access to Headspace. Although stress did reduce, this was not observed in a shorter timescale as previous research has shown (14% in as little as 10 days). However, the comparable data directed participants to use Headspace every day, whilst in this study, participants could use Headspace as they wished. Therefore, in future research, evaluating number of sessions completed, rather than length of Headspace access, may be of greater interest and the influencing variable.
It must also be considered that stress may have reduced over the trial period for reasons outside of the study’s control. For example, alongside adjustments to restrictions as directed by the national government, and as everyone adjusted to life in the pandemic.
Overall, Headspace can be seen to be a worthwhile tool in reducing stress during a time of increased stress. This finding is particularly useful during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as there are restrictions on face-to-face care, meaning that individuals can use a low-level stress intervention via an app, from the comfort of their own home.
Alex Atkins is an undergraduate student at Loughborough University; Dr Nicola Sides is a health psychologist.